Carlos Barbosa-Lima, 77, dies; Expanded classical guitar's reach

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Carlos Barbosa-Lima, 77, dies; Expanded classical guitar's reach
A virtuoso since his teenage years, he performed concerts that ranged from classical repertory to Brazilian music to the Beatles and Broadway.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Carlos Barbosa-Lima, who was a virtuoso on classical guitar while still a teenager in Brazil and then spent a lifetime expanding the instrument’s possibilities, bringing classical techniques and sensibilities to his arrangements of Gershwin, the Beatles and especially the music of his fellow Brazilian Antônio Carlos Jobim, died Feb. 23 at a hospital in São Paulo. He was 77.

Guitarist Larry Del Casale, who had performed with him for years, said the cause was a heart attack.

Barbosa-Lima recorded some 50 albums and performed all over the world, at small recitals and on prestigious stages, including those of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. A Barbosa-Lima concert might include a sonata by Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, “Manha de Carnaval” by the Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfá, “I Got Rhythm” and an encore of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” from the musical “Evita.”

Barbosa-Lima was known for his delicate, intricate playing, which Del Casale said was made possible in part by the unusual strength and flexibility of the fingers of his left hand.

“He had a very, very, very long left-hand stretch,” Del Casale said in a phone interview. “If you try to play some of his arrangements, you can’t do it, because people can’t make those kinds of reaches.”

“He was able to bring out and give voice to the bass, the soprano and alto lines and the melody, and give them each a different volume, a different rhythm,” Del Casale added. “When you’re listening to it, you think it’s two guitars.”

At one of Barbosa-Lima’s earliest New York performances, a 1973 recital at Town Hall in Manhattan, those skills impressed Allen Hughes, who, in his review for The New York Times, wrote that Barbosa-Lima had “made his points modestly and quietly, but with such authority that each work he played became an absorbing musical experience.”

Some 24 years later, Punch Shaw, reviewing a performance in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was especially impressed with Barbosa-Lima’s handling of two Scarlatti sonatas.

“The delicate lacework of those pieces is difficult enough to create on the keyboard instrument for which it was composed,” he wrote. “Taking it so successfully to the guitar as Barbosa-Lima did, as both arranger and performer, was breathtaking.”

Barbosa-Lima applied his arranging skills to contemporary composers as well, including Jobim, with whom he began working in the early 1980s when both were living in New York. Jobim, who died in 1994, was known for his contribution to the score of the 1959 movie “Black Orpheus” and for fueling the bossa nova craze of the 1960s with songs like “The Girl From Ipanema,” when Barbosa-Lima first proposed adapting some of his songs.

“I thought, ‘Why not treat Jobim’s music as if the guitar were a little chamber orchestra?’ ” he told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1995.

The result, in 1982, was the album “Carlos Barbosa-Lima Plays the Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and George Gershwin,” which included Jobim works like “Desafinado” as well as “Summertime” and other Gershwin compositions. The record raised Barbosa-Lima’s profile in the United States considerably.

“Day in, day out, we discussed rhythm, harmony, counterpoint and intention,” Jobim wrote in the liner notes, describing the making of the album. “I watched him with awe as he strove for perfection.”

Another composer who experienced Barbosa-Lima’s skills as an arranger firsthand was Mason Williams, best known for the 1968 crossover hit “Classical Gas.” In 2016, Barbosa-Lima released “Carlos Barbosa-Lima Plays Mason Williams,” an album that included his two-guitar version of Williams’ hit, with Del Casale playing the second guitar part.

“He knew where the essence of the composition lay and stayed true to all of that,” Williams said of the Barbosa-Lima “Classical Gas” on a 2016 episode of the YouTube series “Musicians’ Round Table,” “but he knew exactly where he could expound on aspects of it for his arrangement.”

Though Barbosa-Lima often performed solo, he also arranged a number of works for two guitars, and since 2003 Del Casale had often been his onstage playing partner. The pieces they played could be challenging, but Del Casale said the maestro always had his back if he started going astray.

“If you’re doing a duo with him, he’ll catch you and bring you back in,” he said. “He was that kind of player.”

Antonio Carlos Ribeiro Barbosa-Lima was born Dec. 17, 1944, in São Paulo to Manuel Carlos and Eclair Soares Ribeiro Barbosa-Lima.

He started playing as a boy, by happenstance.

“My father was trying to learn the guitar but couldn’t,” he told The Orlando Sentinel in 2006. “Instead, his teacher began giving me lessons.”

The boy proved to be a prodigy. In 1957 he gave his first concert, and the next year he began releasing albums on the Chantecler label. (They were rereleased a few years ago by Zoho Music as “The Chantecler Sessions.”) Del Casales said Barbosa-Lima’s first record had a reputation among players because he did things on it that most adult professionals couldn’t.

“People say ‘Don’t listen to that album, you’ll burn your guitar,’ ” he said.

Barbosa-Lima first played in the United States in 1967. Not long after that, in Madrid, he met the Spanish classical guitar master Andrés Segovia. He was playing classical repertory at the time, and, Del Casale said, it was Segovia who advised him not to be afraid to follow his own instincts and apply his classical techniques to Brazilian music, jazz, pop or whatever else he wanted. After that, Del Casale said, “He took off his tuxedo, he put on a nice Hawaiian dress shirt, and that was it.”

Barbosa-Lima taught at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and at the Manhattan School of Music in the ’80s. He lived in Puerto Rico for a time, but since about 2000, Del Casale said, he had had no permanent address; he had basically been on the road full time.

He is survived by a sister, Maria Christina Barbosa-Lima. A brother, Luiz, died in 1973.

Barbosa-Lima’s last record, “Delicado,” an homage to Brazilian music made with Del Casale and others, was released in 2019. “This music is romantic, joyful, and surprisingly accessible given the complexity of some of the arrangements,” Glide magazine wrote in a review.

Del Casale remained in awe of his mentor even as he played alongside him.

“The palette of colors he got out of the instrument — he could paint a picture with that guitar,” he said.

Barbosa-Lima once described his technique in a video interview. “I like the guitar to be with me, you know?” he said. “Not me against the guitar.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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